For anyone starting college this fall, the financial-aid clock already is ticking. These sites should help students and their families find affordable schools and hidden sources of funds.

BEST VALUES

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At Kiplinger.com, this section is focused on getting the most for a college buck. There are separate listings for public and private colleges, and overall college rankings. A "reader's choice" poll on the top liberal-arts colleges looks suspiciously stacked, but the site's own ranking for the liberal-arts category is solid, and it is led by Pomona College of Claremont, Calif. A video explains that federal loans, if you qualify, are the best way to go, if you need to borrow. And a report titled "Desperately Seeking Tuition" has other tips.

http://go.philly.com/paycollege1

CALCULATORS

The site for the College Board, the company that runs the SATs, has a large section on paying for college, with calculators and pointers to sources of financial aid and scholarships. A seven-step planner could help you take a systematic look at your options for funding higher education. And a financial-aid calendar starts the countdown in the summer before a student's senior year in high school.

http://go.philly.com/paycollege2

GOING FAFSA

What's worse: getting the college bill or having to fill out the universal financial-aid form called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA? In most cases, both parents and students have to complete the government form, and it is best to get it done even before you do your taxes, since colleges start to divvy up financial aid as early as January. For most families, this chore is unavoidable.

www.fafsa.ed.gov

SEVEN BREAKS

Bankrate.com's article on "7 Alternative Ways to Pay for College" reminds readers that it can pay to speed your way through college by getting into an accelerated degree program. If that doesn't suit, there actually are a few tuition-free colleges around. Or, if you do run up a big debt, you might be able to work off some or all of it by joining a community-service program such as the Peace Corps after college.

http://go.philly.com/paycollege3